Rain pattered down against the kitchen window, sliding across the glass and puddling outside on the windowsill. The sound was soothing, and Sting sighed, leaning against the counter and looking down toward the street.
“Hey, pretty kitty,” Sting murmured as Frosche hopped up next to him, mrowling happily and rubbing herself against him. He ran his fingers through her fur, and she arched her back, pressing up against his hand while she rumbled with a deep purr.
Sting kissed the top of her head before she turned toward the window, putting her paws up on the sill and squeezing herself between the plants that Rogue had set up there. She barely fit between them and her tail hung down into the sink, flicking back and forth as she watched the raindrops.
Sting was about to move away from the window when he saw a familiar vehicle on the street. Some of the tension that had been sitting in his chest all day loosened as he watched Gray’s beat-up car pull into the parkade below the apartment.
“Looks like Gray’s home early,” Sting said to Frosche. She tipped her head back at him and meowed happily.
A few minutes later the door swung open and Frosche hopped down from the counter, sauntering over to greet Gray.
“Hey, sweet girl,” he murmured as she rubbed herself against his legs. “How was your day?”
“She’s been following me around the house all morning,” Sting said, taking Gray’s jacket and leaning in for a kiss. “I think she missed you.”
“Of course she missed me,” Gray said, returning the kiss and leaning down to pick Frosche up. “Her brothers are assholes and troublemakers; she needs someone nice to cuddle.”
“Hey, Lector’s not an asshole,” Sting protested, following Gray into the bedroom and flopping down on the bed. Lector, who had been sleeping on the pillow, reached out and batted at Sting. “You’re not helping your case,” Sting muttered, nudging him away. Lector quickly grappled Sting’s foot, kicking at it with both back feet until Sting grabbed him by the scruff and set him down on the floor.
“You were saying?” Gray said, laughing as Lector sauntered out of the bedroom. He tugged off his button-down shirt and tossed it in the laundry basket, then yawned and stretched, tipping his head from side to side and sighing.
“He’s not always an asshole,” Sting amended. He grabbed one of the pillows and pulled it close, pressing his face into it and sighing. It smelled like Natsu’s shampoo.
“You okay?” Gray asked, sitting down on the bed and reaching over to brush Sting’s hair out of his face. “You look like you need a hug.”
Sting hesitated, then nodded and let Gray move the pillow so he could lie down and pull Sting into his arms. Gentle fingers combed through Sting’s hair, and Gray pressed a soft kiss to his forehead.
“What’s wrong?” Gray murmured. “How can I help?”
“It’s…” Sting hesitated, running his fingers over Gray’s necklace. “I dunno.”
“Did something happen?” Gray asked. Sting sighed, then closed his eyes and curled up closer, tucking his head under Gray’s chin.
“’s my mom’s birthday,” he said quietly. Gray was still for a second, then hugged Sting tightly, rubbing his thumb over the tense muscles in the back of Sting’s neck. He was quiet, and the silence was somehow more comforting than anything he could have said.
“I miss her,” Sting said after a minute. He exhaled quietly, matching his breathing to the quiet rise and fall of Gray’s chest. “I know it’s been almost twenty-five years now, but...”
“Grief doesn’t have a timeline,” Gray said gently, words vibrating in his chest under Sting’s fingertips.
“I know,” Sting said as Gray’s lips met his temple. “I just... sometimes I can’t really... I can’t...”
“Can’t what, love?” Gray asked, shifting back and running his thumb across Sting’s cheek. The tears that had been on the edge of falling all day were pooling in the corner of Sting’s eyes and he let out a shaky sigh.
“I can’t remember what she looks like,” he whispered, voice breaking on the last word. “I mean—I have pictures, and Oma does, and I can... I know what she looks like, but I can’t remember it.” He rubbed his face, trying to swallow back the tears. “It’s all just... I know she read to me, and we made cookies and all those things, but it’s all blurry and I can’t remember, and I feel so guilty.”
Gray slid his hand down Sting’s arm until their hands were clasped, then squeezed as Sting pressed his face into the crook of Gray’s neck. “I tried to talk to Oma today,” Sting added, voice muffled by Gray’s shirt. “We went out for lunch, but she kept changing the subject. I think it just makes her sad.”
“Why don’t you tell me about your mom?” Gray suggested. “What do you remember?” He shifted until he was lying on his back, and almost immediately Frosche jumped up onto the bed to curl up on his stomach. Lector and Happy weren’t far behind, and soon Sting and Gray were surrounded by the sound of contented purring.
“She loved to bake,” Sting said softly, running his fingers through Frosche’s fur. “Especially at Christmas. I liked to lick the beaters when she was making chocolate chip cookies.”
“Hm, sounds familiar,” Gray said. Sting laughed, thinking of Natsu sneaking into the kitchen to eat cookie dough while he baked. Gray ran his fingers through Sting’s hair, curling the ends of it around his fingers.
“I used to have long hair,” Sting said as Gray’s thumb brushed behind his ear. “Well, not like Rogue’s or anything, but longer than it is now. When I started kindergarten, Mom kept asking if I wanted to cut it, but I said no, because…” He trailed off, rubbing his face with the back of his hand.
“Because what?” Gray asked gently.
Sting smiled sadly. “I wanted to look like her.” Gray made a soft sound and ran a hand up Sting’s arm. “This is hers,” Sting added, reaching up and touching the earring he was wearing. He didn’t wear it often – dangly earrings were a hazard when working with small children – but today it had felt right. Gray tucked Sting’s hair behind his ear and ran his thumb over the bright diamond.
“It’s gorgeous,” he said. He looked at Sting’s other ear and frowned. “Where’s the other one?”
Sting sighed, looking up at the ceiling before whispering, “With her.” He could feel Gray start to apologize and he shook his head, grabbing Gray’s wrist and pressing a kiss to his palm. “She had so many earrings,” Sting said, closing his eyes and picturing quiet Saturday afternoons playing dress-up in his mom’s room. “A whole box of them, one of those cedar jewelry ones lined with red velvet. It was like a treasure chest.”
He went quiet for a moment, waiting out the quiet ache of grief that welled up in his chest. “Her and my dad were going on a date for their anniversary,” he said after a while. “She always let me help her get ready. I loved to stand in her closet under all the scarves and dresses and spin in circles; it was all so soft and sparkly. She even let me try on her shoes a few times.”
Gray didn’t say anything, just kept running his fingers through Sting’s hair. “I picked out her jewelry for her,” Sting said, tipping his head back and closing his eyes. “I couldn’t decide between the diamond earrings and the green ones, so I gave her one of each and… she looked so pretty.”
Sting wiped at his eyes, sighing when Gray’s thumb brushed across his temple. “Is that when…” Gray trailed off uncertainly.
“Yeah,” Sting said, cuddling up against Gray again and shifting his leg across Gray’s thigh. Frosche meowed indignantly and flicked her tail, then moved closer to Sting until she was curled against his stomach.
“I’m so sorry,” Gray said, kissing Sting’s forehead again and holding him tight.
“I was so angry,” Sting said. He toyed with the button on Gray’s shirt, letting himself dip into the shallow end of the grief that had receded with time. “At them, at Oma and Opa, at myself. Oma says I cut off all my hair with craft scissors a few days after they died but I don’t remember it. I never grew it out again… this is the longest it’s been since then.”
Gray wrapped one of the blond curls around his finger and nudged Sting. “Are you growing it out now?” he asked. “I thought you just kept forgetting to book a haircut.”
“I did,” Sting admitted. “Well, I booked one a few weeks ago, but then Natsu went instead ‘cause he needed to dye his and I just… it got a little long in the back and…”
He reached into his pocket, pulling out his phone and flipping open his photos. After a second he found the picture he was looking for and held it up so Gray could see.
“Oh,” Gray said softly, staring down at the picture of a woman with soft blonde curls and bright blue eyes. She was sitting on a dock at the lake, head tipped back as she smiled into the sunset. “You look just like her.”
“Yeah,” Sting said around the mix of bittersweet feelings in his chest. “Everyone said that at their funeral, and it made me so sad and angry, but now…” He let himself smile as Frosche headbutted his chest.
“I think it’s a great way to remember her,” Gray said. “She sounds amazing.”
“She was.” Sting looked back down at his phone and flipped to the next picture. In it, he was three or four, sitting on his mom’s lap and holding a picture book as she read to him. “I wish you could have met her.” He swallowed around the sudden tightness in his throat as the tears returned. “She would have loved you. All of you. She loved everyone, and I just wish she could see how happy I am.”
“She would be so proud of you,” Gray said. “And all the things you’ve said about her – you’re describing yourself, too.” Heat rushed to Sting’s cheeks and he made a sound of protest, pressing his face against Gray’s shoulder. “You’re the kindest person I know,” Gray continued. “And when you talk about the way she loved you, I know exactly what you mean.”
Sting frowned, tipping his head back and gazing at Gray curiously.
“You love the same way,” Gray said, brushing Sting’s hair out of his face. “With your whole self. Unconditionally. Being loved by you is… it’s hard to explain.” He sighed. “Rogue could probably make more sense than me. But when you kiss me, or touch me, it’s like… you’re putting everything into it. You’re there, every time, loving all of me with everything you have.
“Maybe that’s how you remember her,” Gray said gently. “By loving like her. You might not remember what she looks like, but you remember how she loved you, and you love other people the same way.”
A muffled half-sob escaped from Sting and he sniffed, wiping away the tears that were streaking his cheeks. “I love you,” he whispered as Gray wrapped both arms around him and pulled him close.
“And I can feel it every day,” Gray murmured. “We all can. Your mom gave you the best parts of herself, and you give us the best parts of you.”
Sting relaxed completely against Gray, letting himself cry until he felt tired and wrung-out. When he finally pulled away and wiped at his face, the sky outside was dark. Sting heard the sound of the front door opening and all three cats immediately leaped down from the bed and ran to the door, meowing impatiently.
“We’re home!” Natsu called, and Sting could hear him and Rogue kicking off their boots and hanging up their jackets.
“Guess it’s supper time,” Sting said, voice hoarse. Gray helped him sit up, then wiped the tears on his cheeks away and leaned in to kiss him.
“Wanna bake cookies tonight?” he asked.
“Someone say something about cookies?” Natsu said, appearing in the bedroom doorway. “’cause I call dibs on licking the beaters.”
“You always call dibs,” Rogue said, nudging Natsu out of the way as he pulled off his dress shirt and tossed it onto the bed.
“That’s because I’m Sting’s favorite,” Natsu said, sticking his tongue out at Rogue and pushing him toward the bed. Rogue snapped his tie at Natsu, who yelped and ducked out of the way, hopping up behind Sting on the bed and wrapping both arms around his waist. “See, he’s gonna keep me safe.”
“You’re all my favorite,” Sting said, trying to keep his voice steady as he took Natsu’s hand and squeezed it. He looked back over at Gray with a small smile, then reached out and grabbed Rogue’s hand and pulled him onto the bed. “Do we have any plans tomorrow?”
All three of them looked at Gray, who had banned any of them from writing on the calendar after Natsu had used the wrong color marker and Gray had accidentally ended up at his physio appointment. Gray shook his head.
“What’d you have in mind, love?” Rogue asked.
Sting looked up at him. “Could we visit my parents?”
“At Ashland?” Rogue asked, expression softening. Sting nodded – the cemetery was a way out of the city, near the farm where he’d lived as a kid. “Of course,” Rogue said, touching Sting’s earring and giving him a sad smile. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” Sting said, leaning back against Gray with a happy sigh. When he closed his eyes, the image of his mom in his mind was still hazy, but it was filled with a gentle warmth that tempered the ache of loss.
If the best way to remember his mom was by loving, he was going to love the three of them with everything he had.